Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - July 23, 2010

Good enough to eat

Edible gardens provide fresh produce and unison with nature

by Ryan Deto

In Nancy Lewis' backyard, wrapped around an old tree, a gazebo is suspended 10 feet off the ground. From up here Lewis gets a panorama of her edible garden: To the south, orb-like onion flowers jut out of the plant bed next to the plum tree. To the west lies her strawberry patch surrounded by mesh fencing that deters her dig-happy dog. Just a couple of feet west of the strawberry patch, half a dozen heads of lettuce rest under shade-netting, keeping the greens from drying out.

Lewis eats lettuce from this patch every day.

Lewis' garden will be one of 10 edible gardens featured during the Fourth Annual Edible Landscaping Tour put on by Common Ground Organic Garden Supply and Education Center. Palo Altans will have the opportunity to view residents' plant patches and get ideas and advice on how to grow their own edible gardens during the tour. Common Ground store manager Patricia Becker said the tour is only possible because of the enthusiasm of residents like Lewis.

"People who come into Common Ground are excited about edible gardens and they want to share them with people," Becker said. "And then people come in who are just beginning and they like to see what other people are doing."

Nancy Lewis started her garden just over a year ago after marrying her husband Patrick. If having an edible garden wasn't green enough, Lewis has also implemented many eco-friendly techniques: a spinning compost barrel, six barrels to catch rainwater, recycled redwood for the planter boxes and old spring bed-frames for vines to wrap around. She also writes about gardening and offers tips to new gardeners on her blog, "New Urban Gardens."

Raised a farmer's daughter in Arkansas, Lewis developed a kinship to gardening that now runs deep through her roots.

"I've always felt really connected to dirt everywhere I have lived," Lewis said. "Since I have left home I have had to have some garden space."

Now, she uses that experience to grow a plethora of produce all over her yard. Raspberries, potatoes, melons, garlic, strawberries, figs and basil fill planter boxes resting on top of gray gravel.

"I just really love the taste of home-grown food," Lewis said. "It is really satisfying to go pick things and bring them in and eat them within minutes."

Even though she has a farming background, Lewis said that a backyard doesn't have to turn into a fertilizer-laden, fully tilled farm. Large, flat stepping stones guide the way through her garden. With almost everything growing in 2- by 6-foot planter boxes, walking from the main house to the guest house in the back is clean and easy.

"The focus in this garden is that it can be really beautiful as well as edible," Lewis said. "Sometimes gardens get stuck in the back. We are really trying to integrate our living space with our edible garden space."

But beauty and convenience come with a price and Lewis said that her garden, as of the moment, is not saving her any money. Because her garden is just over a year old, the plants are too young to produce enough to compete with market prices. With time and effort, Lewis said, the garden can reach its potential and start producing at a high level.

"It is a really long process," Lewis said. "You can't really have an instant garden. It's something you have to make a commitment to and expect that it is going to become more bountiful each year."

This is the first time Lewis' garden will be on the tour. Lewis said that she is excited to meet and get advice from other gardeners. Lewis has some problems and hopes visitors will have solutions.

Next to the Palo Alto Christian Reform Church on Arastradero Road, the Common Ground demonstration garden, another one of the gardens on the tour, spreads around a small brown shack. Patricia Becker walks through the garden and up to a 4-foot-tall purple and green tree collard. She picks off a particularly luscious leaf and pops it into her mouth. "Hmm, very chewy," she says.

As she meanders from bed to bed, her golden blonde hair and bright disposition seem to light up the garden more than the mid-day sun. She walks past stalks of wheat and barley, blue-borage edible sweet flowers, a pair of apricot trees and mushroom spores on logs that look like a Boy Scout firepit. Becker said the garden was built to demonstrate edible gardening methods that residents can emulate.

And many gardens on the tour have. Some have even gone beyond Common Ground's teachings. One of the gardens has a fully-functioning chicken coop and another has an apple tree that fell down but kept growing, turning into an "apple bush" with easy picking access.

Becker said the tour showcases the benefits of growing edible gardens, such as working outside and connecting with nature.

"You get to see creation in your own backyard, in your side yard, in your front yard," Becker said. "And you get to eat the most nutritional and freshest food."

However, these benefits are usually contingent on the ability to own land, Becker said. Palo Alto has three community gardens where anyone can grow vegetables and flowers, and Becker said that many times owners will let neighbors garden on their property if they are willing to share their food. Becker also said that land should only be a small concern.

"There is so much land, there are so many people who let you garden," Becker said. "I think the main thing is the seed of desire growing inside of people. Once you have that seed of desire to want to learn how to grow food, the land will come to you."

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What: Edible Landscaping Tour

When: Saturday, July 24, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Self-guided tour of 10 gardens throughout Palo Alto. Pick up map at Common Ground Organic Supply and Education Center, 559 College Ave., Palo Alto

Cost: $35 to benefit Common Ground, a project of the nonprofit group Ecology Action

Info: Call 650-493-6072 or visit www.commongroundinpaloalto.org

Editorial Intern Ryan Deto can be e-mailed at rdeto@paweekly.com.

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